Suspended Romero 'didn't cheat'

Although Major League Baseball never said J.C. Romero tried to cheat, the 33-year-old relief pitcher who won the third and clinching games of the 2008 World Series has been ruled guilty of "negligence" and will be suspended for the first 50 games of the 2009 season.

The commissioner's office on Tuesday officially announced Romero's suspension.

Romero said on Monday that he bought a supplement from a GNC store in Cherry Hill, N.J., in July. The Major League Baseball Players Association had told players the supplement was acceptable, but now the Philadelphia Phillies left-hander will receive a suspension and lose $1.25 million.

"I still cannot see where I did something wrong," Romero said. "There is nothing that should take away from the rings of my teammates. I didn't cheat. I tried to follow the rules."

Romero said he does not want to name the supplement in the event young athletes attempt to purchase it.

Three months after Romero was tested before a Phillies-Mets game on Aug. 26, the players' association sent a Nov. 21 letter to players that stated, "We have previously told you there is no reason to believe a supplement bought at a U.S. based retail store could cause you to test positive under our Drug Program. That is no longer true. We have recently learned of three substances which can be bought over the counter at stores in the United States that will cause you to test positive. These three supplements were purchased at a GNC and Vitamin Shoppe in the U.S."

In Romero's arbitration hearing that was held in Tampa, Fla., during the first two days of the World Series, it was claimed that, in early July, the National Center for Drug Free Sport had notified MLB of questions about the supplement Romero had purchased. Somehow, MLB and the players' association never got that straight, according to Romero.

Rob Manfred, MLB's vice president of labor relations and human resources, who carries the reputation of being extraordinarily fair, did not return a call regarding the case.

So caught in the middle of MLB and the players' association is Romero. He has his World Series ring. He has the distinction of being the winning pitcher in Games 3 and 5. "But," he said, "what's most important is that I get back my honor. This just isn't fair."

Last season was Romero's 10th in the major leagues. In 2006, he tested positive for a precursor of testosterone, which was a fertility supplement his wife, Erin, and he were taking. The case was dropped. On Nov. 27, 2006, their daughter Jazlyn was born.

Then came this summer's fiasco. "The season is a grind," Romero said. "When you're a middle reliever, you have to be ready to get up and down and pitch every day. Everyone takes something. Some guys drink coffee, others supplements. We try to make sure they're all legal. I certainly did."

On July 22, Romero bought a supplement at the GNC store in Cherry Hill. He had it checked by his personal nutritionist, who said there was nothing in the supplement that was illegal. There was no warning on the label. Romero mentioned it to Phillies strength and conditioning coach Dong Lien.

There seems to have been some confusion in testimony during the October arbitration hearing. According to Romero, Lien told him to get a second opinion; Romero took the supplement to a second nutritionist, who cleared it. In the hearing, Lien testified to that fact, but at another time he said he suggested Romero not take it. Romero in no way blames Lien.

"What they now say I should have done was call the drug hot line," Romero said. "But I had it checked out by nutritionists, and I was following the guidelines laid down by the players' association in spring training."

On Aug. 26 and Sept. 19, Romero was tested, as all players are, randomly. On Sept. 23, players' association counsel Bob Lenaghan informed Romero he had tested positive.

"I immediately stopped taking all supplements, although I had no idea it was the cause of the positive test," Romero said.

He spoke to Michael Weiner at the MLBPA and told him he did not know the cause of the positive test. On Oct. 1, Weiner told Romero that the specific supplement was indeed the cause of the failed test and that because it was purchased over the counter in the U.S., he believed the case would be dropped.

That same day, Oct. 1, Romero was tested again. The results were negative. So for the NLDS, NLCS and World Series, Romero says the supplement was no longer in his system.

Two days later, Romero was informed that MLB would be willing to reduce his suspension to 25 games, starting at the beginning of the 2009 season, on the condition that he admitted guilt. Romero said he couldn't because he did not believe he did anything wrong.

On Oct. 12, the second set of test results came back -- from the Sept. 19 test conducted four days before Romero learned he had tested positive the first time -- and was positive. MLB then changed its offer: The suspension would still be reduced to 25 games, but it had to start immediately and he had to admit guilt. Again, Romero declined, because he did not believe he was in the wrong and because he did not want to miss his first World Series.

The arbitration hearing was held Oct. 22 in Tampa, the first day of the World Series. Curiously, the bottle of the supplement MLB had purchased contained the label warning: "Use of this product may be banned by some athletic or government associations." However, the bottle Romero had purchased and brought to the hearing contained no warning.

In December, the players' association informed Romero that the arbitrator had had a change of heart and was ruling against him. On Sunday, that was confirmed, and Tuesday afternoon, MLB will announce the suspension.

There seems to be little question that the players' association unwittingly misled Romero -- and other players -- about over-the-counter supplements purchased in the United States. Somehow, after MLB was warned in early July, those concerns about three supplements available at every GNC store did not reach the players' association.

Romero now pays the price. Fifty games, $1.25 million.

"I told them that if I ever tested positive again, I would accept a 100-day suspension," Romero said. "They know I didn't cheat. And yet the rest of my career, people are going to say, 'He cheated,' even though I tested negative at the start of the playoffs. I did what I was told to do, what I thought was legal and right."

Peter Gammons serves as a studio analyst on "Baseball Tonight" and "Baseball Today."